Midsummer isn’t much celebrated in Britain these days. There are a few revived festivals around – in Cornwall, especially – but most people’s ‘celebration’ is restricted to a TV news clip of folks at Stonehenge having a knees-up, courtesy of English Heritage.
Most of Britain’s midsummer festivities – including Cumbria’s – were dying out by the end of the 17th century1, although there is evidence that they lingered in the north of the county into the mid 19th century2. Midsummer festivals are still very common across Europe; just about everywhere has some history of it, but it remains second only to Christmas Day in Scandinavia and northeastern Europe.They were known not as ‘midsummer’ but as St. John’s Eve3 festivals – having been re-named by the church in an attempt to Christianise an older tradition – and usually took place not on the solstice (21st June), but on the date regarded as midsummer’s eve in Roman times, 23rd June. The fact that church authorities were well aware that they’d adopted an earlier custom is very clear when the 7th-century St. Eligius was recorded as saying, ‘no Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia 4 or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants’5.
Modern observers are often keen to associate midsummer with the Celts but the places where the festival has retained its vibrancy to this day are the ‘Viking’ Scandinavian and the Baltic states. But midsummer is equally well recorded, if not still celebrated, in Ireland, where it is unequivocally linked with a named ancient goddess who pre-dates the Vikings by many hundreds of years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons it was hard to drive out of Cumbria – the double whammy of over-layered Celtic and Viking traditions.The Wetheral Midsummer Wakes continued well into the 19th century. A bonfire was lit, and young men took long lengths of cloth dipped in tallow, and lit them in the fire. They then paraded around the village, holding the flaming brands above their heads.6
The common theme of all midsummer festivals, ancient and modern, is the bonfire. Almost all of them require young men to jump through the flames three, seven or nine times; all numbers with ancient magical associations. Folklore keenies will have noticed that this sounds very similar to the Celtic cattle-purification rite of the ‘need-fire’.
There were games and outdoor sports, and women gathered plants and flowers to decorate their doorways and hearths. The plants chosen varied by country, but a common one in Britain was, not surprisingly, St. John’s Wort. The plant is named for the festival, not the other way round; its botanical name is ‘hypericum’ from the Greek, ‘hypereikon’, an ‘eikon’ being a ghost or other spirit. ‘Hyper’ means ‘over’ or ‘above’, giving a combined meaning conveying the ability to fend off spirits.7For here is another midsummer tradition; like Samhain/Halloween, it was considered a time of year when magic was powerful, and ghosts, ghouls, demons, witches and faeries – depending on the culture and time – might be abroad. The greenery around the home was a talisman against their influence.
The third major element of midsummer festivities was divination, and love divination in particular. Here we definitely pre-date the Vikings with links to Áine, an Irish Celtic goddess and member of the Tuatha dé Danann, who, over the centuries, came to be regarded as a faery queen. In her goddess form, Áine – whose name means ‘light – was represented by the sun and the moon, and looked after human love, wealth and well-being. Rituals in her honour were held on midsummer and required a bonfire. Familiar?
Details of love divination are thin on the ground in Cumbria, but other western counties shared a tradition known as the ‘midsummer rose’. A woman picked a rose and pressed it in paper. If she didn’t check the rose until Christmas Day, she would find it was still fresh; she then pinned it to her bosom, and the first man to snatch it up would be her future husband.8
So how far do midsummer festivals go back? Forever, possibly, or possibly not. Stonehenge, and Cumbria’s own stone circles9 – especially Long Meg, Swinside and Castlerigg – are around 5,000 years old and have stones that seem to align with various solstices. Nowadays, prehistorians tend to think that midwinter, rather than midsummer, was the major festival of the year, but it’s hard to tell as anything that lines up with midwinter sunset also aligns with midsummer sunrise. So our ideas of druid-type people worshipping at the same places into the mists of history might be a bit out of synch with reality… or they might not. But there’s no doubt that we were doing something at midsummer in early times, as we’ve already seen - we just don’t know when we started.
The beginning of the end for midsummer celebrations in Britain was the 17th-century civil war. St. John’s Eve had, ironically, been heavily associated with the over-the-top symbolism and ritualism of the pre-Reformation Catholic church, and was labelled a ‘papish superstition’. It limped on in geographical outposts without a strong tradition of puritanism – Cornwall, Ireland, and, to a lesser extent, Cumberland – but largely disappeared elsewhere.
But today the sun is shining up here in Cumbria, and I say: A Happy Midsummer to you all.
- Amongst others, Machel said in 1692 that midsummer bonfires were no longer lit in Westmorland. See The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
- Dr. Littleton, Bishop of Carlisle, said that they continued until the mid 19th century. See The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
- John the Baptist was believed to have been born six months before Jesus, hence midsummer more or less fell on his birthday.
- Pagan summer solstice rites.
- Vita of St. Eligius (7th century)
- See The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
- A secondary meaning of ‘eikon’ is the root of ‘icon’; this was said to be the reason that in some countries, painted icons of saints were dressed with St. John’s wort. I’m no etymologist, but that sounds a bit… thin.
- Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (2000).
- Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barraclough (2010)
There’s a nice blog post on Midsummer at Cumbria’s neighbour, the Isle of Man, at the Manx witch blog.
And another one here, which raises the point about there being more evidence of midwinter use at stone circles, at the Prehistoric Shamanism blog.